The Five Layers of Tu B’Shvat – A Sweet Taste of Jewish History
JNF-Alexander Muss High School in Israel
Of the festivals in the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Shvat is considered a minor celebration, in a different league from days such as Rosh Hashanah or Pesach. But as a reflection of our long history Tu B’Shvat is unparalleled. The ups and downs of this festival reflect the roller coaster ride which is Jewish history. As we prepare to sit round our fruit-laden Tu B’Shvat festive table, we can detect five distinct historical layers which have contributed to the formation and development of this festival.
Tu B’Shvat owes its founding and introduction to the Pharisee rabbis at the end of the Second Temple period in the first century of the Common Era. The rabbis took upon themselves the task of formalizing and codifying Jewish practice. The Torah commands us to separate tithes from agricultural produce grown in Israel and to donate them to kohanim and levi’im (priests), and to the poor. This necessitated fixing a date to distinguish between the produce of one agricultural cycle and the next; however, the rival schools of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel argued over the precise date. Deeply aware of weather patterns in the land of Israel, this controversy focused on determining the mid-point of winter. Eventually Beit Hillel’s approach was accepted, and the 15th of Shvat was fixed as the day when the majority of the annual rainfall had already fallen. It became an important day for calculating tithing and taxation, but was not considered a cause for particular celebration.
Kabbalistic and Mystical Layer
After the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century, and then the Moslem conquest of Eretz Yisrael in the 7th century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel dwindled in size. The vast majority of the Jews were scattered in exile. The nation became estranged from working the land, and the agricultural and climatic realities of the land lost their importance. Tu B’Shvat seemed almost irrelevant.
But in the aftermath of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century, Jews began returning to Israel. New communities sprang up in ancient cities. In the hills of the Galil, mystics gathered in the city of Tzfat to seek holiness and to find intimacy with the Creator. For them, the land was bursting with life and sanctity. In every fruit grown in the soil of the Holy Land they saw the wondrous act of creation. Each fruit bore special symbolism. They designed a mystical meal – the Tu B’Shvat Seder, in which they ate of the fruits of the land, and studied the mystical connections between the symbolism of each fruit with the saga of the longings of the Jewish people to return to their land and their G-d. They drank red and white wine to connect to the seasons of the year and the mystery of death and rebirth that we see enacted in nature. Tu B’Shvat came alive with new vigour.
Fueled by longings for Zion and by the ferocity of anti-Semitism in Europe, in the 1880s and at the turn of the twentieth century, pioneers began making Aliyah to settle and farm the Land of Israel. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was founded in 1901 in order to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. After the tragically early death of Theodore Herzl in 1904, the JNF launched a new project; the Herzl Forest marked the beginning of a wondrous effort that has been happening continuously for 112 years to repopulate the Land of Israel with trees and forests. This project fired the imaginations of Jews worldwide. Who doesn’t remember saving up money for tree planting in Israel? Who hasn’t participated in a moving JNF tree planting ceremony?
With the new international Jewish project to plant trees in Israel, Tu B’Shvat underwent a transformation. The ancient New Year for Trees metamorphosed into a day of tree planting. All over Israel (and in imitation also throughout the world), Jewish communities, and especially the youth, devote this day to joyous tree planting ceremonies. On this day we all become active participants in the JNF mission to redeem the land.
The Twentieth Century Diaspora
Although the Zionist movement was making remarkable advances in redeeming the Land, during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, 95% of world Jewry was still in the Diaspora. The largest communities were in Europe, suffering from increasing anti-Semitism and poverty. Some migrated to the West, but in many cases families were unable to leave. The Israeli poet Naomi Shemer wrote a beautiful song entitled “The Fruits of the Fifteenth”, about the Jews of Europe (specifically Warsaw). It is mid-winter. The city is cold and covered in snow and mud. The Jew sits at his modest table to mark Tu B’Shvat. On this occasion the Jewish community would import fruits grown in Eretz Yisrael. The only fruits that would survive the journey were dried fruits – figs, dates and carobs. Sitting at his poor table with the snow and sleet beating on the window, the Jew in Poland would celebrate Tu B’Shvat by tasting the sweet dried fruits from Israel. In that fruit was encapsulated not just the taste, but all his longings for a better world, a world of warmth, freedom and sunshine. Tu B’Shvat became the day to express the longing to escape the exile and to return home to Israel.
On our troubled planet with our air polluted by exhaust fumes, our landfills with toxic waste, our garbage littering the countryside, our rivers flowing with chemicals, our ozone layer depleted, and our climate warming up ominously, Jewish leaders have sought to express our responsibility towards this beautiful earth that G-d has given us. A day was needed to focus our attention as Jews on our moral responsibility to be good custodians of the earth. What could be more appropriate than Tu B’Shvat, the day on which we connect to our land, its fruits and its trees? And so the modern Tu B’Shvat Seder has taken on a new dimension in which we pause to consider our responsibilities to society and to the world we wish to bequeath to the next generation.
As we plant trees and sit at our Seder Tu B’Shvat at tables laden with the delicious fruits of the modern State of Israel, we taste each of the layers of Tu B’Shvat. This day connects us to the wisdom of our Rabbis, the wonder of the mystics, the ideals of the pioneers, the longings of Diaspora and the responsibilities of today.
Aubrey Isaacs is the Israel Studies educator at the JNF-Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Ever since it’s founding in 1972, the JNF-Alexander Muss High School in Israel has been a pioneer in Jewish and Zionist education. Its greatest innovation has been guiding teenagers to face questions of contemporary Jewish identity using the prism of academic study of history. Students grapple with ancient and modern dilemmas, and learn to find, in the dramas and decisive moments of the past, the very questions that they face today as young Jews in the modern world.